Medway riots – the phantom menace

The following article was originally written for a local “alternative paper”, the Medway Broadside. The Group has asked me to post it here as a contribution to ongoing discussion of the recent riots in England.

To refer to the Medway riots, as far as they happened, as a damp squib is to give them way too much credit.

Here’s what we’ve been told. A small group of people travelled down to Gillingham by train from London (according to the police); because obviously there are no alienated, angry people in Medway itself. There was a brief stand off in Gillingham High Street between police and (according, again, to the police) fifteen youths. Some cardboard boxes were set alight. Over the course of the night, several cars and litter bins were also burned. And that was pretty much it.

This was the incident that some of the local press decided to call “Kent’s night of terror”. They might have called it, more accurately, four days of manufactured hysteria.

During the course of the preceding and following days, I personally heard and read a variety of increasingly apocalyptic rumours. Thousands of organised rioters were on their way, by train, from Peckham to loot and burn Gillingham (why were they from Peckham, specifically? How the hell did they manage to cram onto the overcrowded trains?). Debenham’s in Chatham High Street, Wickes, and the Pentagon shopping centre, were all – wrongly – said to be blazing infernos at some stage or other. A Facebook page rather dramatically entitled “Medway riots update” rapidly filled up with similar, and sillier, rumours and appeals not to post rumours along with advice to “stay at home”, presumably to avoid the danger of the non-riots that were not happening in the area.

At one point I read that “gangs of Muslim youth” were rampaging down Luton Road, burning and looting all in their path. I looked out from my window. Predictably, no such thing was happening.

Now, here’s the point. There is no question that many, many people have been feeling genuinely frightened. That is no surprise. Over a period of years, the mass media and politicians between them have instilled a fear of a supposed “criminal underclass”; of “hoodies” and asylum seekers; of disaffected, alienated youth and of gangs.

While a small proportion of looters certainly came from other backgrounds – an organic chef here, a teaching assistant there – the August riots have been overwhelmingly an explosion of bitterness and resentment among those very elements on society’s edge we have been encouraged to fear and loath. For a few days, some of the people on the fringe have forced their way centre-stage, and it’s been savage, and it’s been scary.

Much hand wringing and moralising has also accompanied it. Indeed, for many people the riots have brought them to the limits of their own liberalism. It’s surprised even a cynic like me how quickly decent people can want to resort to water cannon, rubber bullets and, ultimately, military force. How quickly, too, they can resort to directing their own anger and abuse at any suggestion there might be deeper causes behind rioting and looting that may just require deeper solutions. All on the back of fear, and rumour, and the demonisation of the poorest and most disenfranchised sections of society.

Whose demons, I find myself wondering, have these riots conjured up to stalk our streets?

As I write, now, the riots have most likely fizzled out, as riots generally do of their own accord. As in the 1980’s, the authorities have been reminded that if you set a spark, in certain conditions, you may end up starting a brushfire. And it’s time for the usual ritual of condemnations and punishments.

This August, the brushfire didn’t spring up here in Medway. But let’s not forget that our towns combine some of the most deprived areas in the southeast of England with some of the wealthiest. Let’s not forget that we are only at the beginning of an ideologically driven campaign to rip apart the few opportunities and the little security that still exist for the most impoverished and the most profoundly disenfranchised.

Prediction is a dangerous game, but for once I will make a prediction. There will be more riots. It may take a year, or two years, or more, but it will happen. And next time, the brushfires might just spring up in Medway.

No amount of fear or moralistic tub-thumping will prevent it, or help us through it. We need to start debating real solutions to the fracturing of society around us. We need to start engaging with the edges. We need to question why our society and economy can be smashed and looted with impunity by the few at the very top, and take action to stop that.

If we can begin to do those things, then instead of riots, fear and loathing in our community we may have solidarity, justice, and some sense that we can make our world a better place instead of it becoming a worse one. But as the ashes of the August riots cool, we need to start that process now.

Philip Kane

~ by londonsurrealistgroup on August 26, 2011.

One Response to “Medway riots – the phantom menace”

  1. what has suprised me around this is how people seem to avoid the issue of there being any point in looking deeper or thinking about deeper solutions. Much of societies mind has appeared to have fallen into lethargy with the variety of consumerist options to riot about.

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